Tough Choices for the NDP

The final NDP leadership debate exposed stark choices facing the party as it prepares for the next election. Tom Mulcair presented himself as the most natural successor to Jack Layton; he was an architect of the Quebec strategy, which gave the NDP credibility to cast itself as a truly national party and government in waiting. For those New Democrats who want to see Layton’s strategy fully executed, Mulcair is the obvious choice: he is from Quebec, holds the second NDP seat ever won there, and is probably most able to consolidate that position. His strategy would be to expand the NDP beyond its traditional base, and that means throwing out boilerplate language and tailoring the party’s message to diverse constituencies. Not only would this breath life into riding associations, it would help extend the party to places where it currently has few seats, like the West. This he called “modernization.”

The problem with Mulcair is that he is a newcomer to the NDP, having served previously in Jean Charest’s Liberal provincial government in Quebec. Peggy Nash challenged Mulcair on his view that the party needs renewal. Mulcair countered that he does not propose to take the party in a different direction so much as continuing to move forward with Layton’s strategy. Some of the other candidates were skeptical. Brian Topp said Mulcair had been “very critical of the party.” Mulcair responded that at one point the party was strenuously advocating universal daycare – a message that did not resonate in Quebec, which has had such a policy for some time. With respect to the West, his view was that the NDP should do what it did in Quebec: listen to the local constituencies and tailor the message. The NDP, he said, has trees with shallow roots (Quebec) or roots with no trees (Saskatchewan, where the party has won no seats in 4 consecutive elections).

Topp painted himself (and Peggy Nash) as an “unreformed social democrat,” thereby highlighting his loyalty to traditional party commitments. Topp has the big establishment endorsements, including party icon Ed Broadbent; he talked about being with Layton when he wrote his final letter to Canadians. Nash, for her part, has links to the labour movement (auto workers), leaving no doubt about her social democratic bona fides. The two seem like the most likely to benefit if Mulcair stumbles. Ashton also positions herself close to the party activists – attacking Mulcair for not supporting opposition to trade deals – but she lacks gravitas.

The most personal attack on Mulcair came from Paul Dewar who said that Layton was a “happy warrior”; Mulcair, no the other hand, “got the warrior part down” but where was the inspiration?” This got chuckles from the audience, many of whom know of Mulcair’s reputation as a pugnacious and often bad-tempered leader who does not always work well with colleagues, particularly women. One woman I spoke with after the debate said that Mulcair’s smiles did not seem genuine; another said she found him stiff and unnatural (he read both his opening and closing statements). But Mulcair’s answer to Dewar was to say that it is not enough to quote Layton about being “loving, hopeful and optimistic” (which Topp did in his opening remarks), one had to incarnate this by taking the high road and being good, kind, and respectful of the other candidates in the race. He also noted that the point is to win.

The second major cleavage was between those who would work with other opposition parties and those who would not. Ashton struck a partisan note when she said, in her opening remarks, “Liberal, Tory, same old story.” Only Nathan Cullen – and, with some big caveats, Peggy Nash – seemed to be willing to talk about working with the other opposition parties. Both advocate electoral reform because they believe the Tory majority is, in Cullen’s terms, “false” – that is, based on electoral arithmetic that is allows 39 percent of the voters to have an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons.

The cooperation issue emerged when Paul Dewar alluded to the Leadnow.ca website where Peggy Nash, in response to a survey on where the candidates stand on cooperation, argued that she would be willing to pool resources with other opposition parties. Dewar noted that this seemed like a change in position and he wanted to know what it meant. Nash responded that she was not endorsing Cullen’s plan for joint NDP/Liberal candidates in key ridings to dislodge Tories, but she saw no reason why Liberals and New Democrats might not, for example, work together on an ad campaign against building more jails or in favour of proportional representation.

Niki Ashton challenged Nathan Cullen on his plan for joint opposition candidates in Conservative held ridings saying there are no shortcuts to forming government. Cullen responded that Tommy Douglas was elected on a CCF and Social Credit ticket, and he insisted that Canadians are not as partisan as people in the NDP often think (there are more members of the Mountain Equipment Coop, he noted, than in any political party). Politics is one thing, partisanship is another, and there is no evidence, he argued, that Canadians won’t accept a different way of doing politics, as revealed by public support for budget deals and past coalitions: “politics is about working together to get things done, and that is what Canadians want” he said. In his closing remark he insisted that the party has both an opportunity and responsibility to do everything it can to prevent another Tory government, which he characterized as a “clear and present danger” to Canada.

In short, there seem to be two cleavages in the current line up of candidates. These cleavages are directly linked to inter-connected risks the NDP faces. The NDP’s orange crush could fizzle if the base in Quebec is not held and expanded westward. Another risk for the NDP is that competition with the Liberal and Green parties could divide the votes needed to form government. In the first-past-the-post system, failure to coordinate is heavily penalized. Worse still, these risks intersect. For the NDP to hold onto its base and grow, it must compete with the Liberals. Yet competition with the Liberals could result in another Tory majority. It could also make it harder to form a coalition in the event that no party wins enough seats to form a majority on its own. This is a tough strategic dilemma for the members of the NDP as they select their next leader.

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